How Toyota raced the clock to create the FT-1 sports car
Editor's note: The inner sanctum of an automaker's design studio is as classified as a top-secret government spy shop. Even many top executives aren't allowed inside, much less civilians or the media. But after months of negotiations, Toyota Motor Corp. allowed Automotive News inside its Calty design studio in Newport Beach, Calif., to track the development of the FT-1 concept car. This is the story.
Kevin Hunter knew he had a winner.
Presenting a full-sized model of Toyota's next-generation sports car concept to a roomful of executives in Nagoya was going to be a pressure-packed performance. What if Toyota Motor CEO Akio Toyoda didn't like the car? What if the Japanese design chief wanted big changes made? Would there be enough time to make changes before the public unveiling at the Detroit auto show in January, less than nine months away?
But Hunter, the quiet, reserved president of Toyota's Calty Design Research studio in Newport Beach, Calif., had an ace up his sleeve.
In addition to the in-your-face styling of the FT-1 concept he was presenting, the Calty team had brought along a video-gaming pod with a Gran Turismo simulation of the FT-1 installed.
After giving the gleaming red sports car an approving walk-around, Toyoda climbed into the gaming pod, tearing off virtual hot laps at Toyota's home track, Fuji Speedway.
After a few minutes, he climbed out of the pod, beaming that the FT-1 was faster than his real-world lap time in an actual racecar.
Hunter breathed easier. He knew the concept was a go.
A spiritual pace car
The process of getting a sports car concept approved in the first place had started a year earlier, and with no less uncertainty.
Ever since the recession showed signs of easing, the Calty studio had wanted to build an outrageous high-performance concept car.
So when Hunter attended a meeting of Toyota's top management in March 2012 for a design briefing, he gently borrowed Akio Toyoda's recent edict: No more boring cars. Toyoda had publicly expressed worry that the automaker had become saddled with a reputation for conservative vehicles that evoked as much emotion as a dishwasher.
The Toyota brand sells millions of Corollas, Camrys and compact pickups worldwide. But it had no spiritual pace car in its current portfolio. As he entered the management meeting room for his original pitch, Hunter thought to himself: What could be less boring than bringing back a sports car for the Toyota brand?
Hunter's idea was for a concept car that could generate excitement at an upcoming auto show. This would not be a flight of fancy, but a halo car that would tickle show-goers with the idea that Toyota might actually produce such a vehicle.
As he gave his presentation, Hunter watched for reactions. Toyoda seemed excited, as did Mitsuhisa Kato, Toyota's new executive r&d chief, as well as Hunter's boss, global design czar Tokuo Fukuichi.
After Hunter left the room, the gathered executives eyed their CEO, the scion of Toyota's founding family. Fukuichi asked Toyoda and Kato if they thought the concept was worthy of a green light.
Akio looked at his team, and said, "Let's do it."
These early renderings of the interior and exterior of the Toyota FT-1 closely resemble the final car that the automaker unveiled in Detroit last week.
It may seem counterintuitive, but designing a sports car is the toughest challenge a stylist can undertake. On one hand, it's what every designer has dreamed of since doodling during high school algebra. No one aspires to sketch a minivan.
But the pressure to create such a brand statement is unreal. Just ask the guy in charge of updating the Porsche 911 or Ford Mustang. The result must be gorgeous and awe-inspiring, of course. But it also must conform to the company's design ethos without breaking myriad governmental regulations.
One false line — perhaps the hood must be raised by an inch to comply with European pedestrian-crash safety laws — and the car's aura can be compromised.
Over a lightning-fast 18 months, Calty's caffeine-
fueled designers, stylists, modelers and cultural ethnographers would work overtime to transform a clean-sheet idea into a prospective scene-stealer at the Detroit auto show.
Calty chief designer Alex Shen's portfolio already included a couple of Toyota sporty cars, including the
FT-HS concept and Scion FR-S production coupe. But after 20 years at Calty, this was something different: a once-in-a-career opportunity, as Shen calls it, to make "a kick-ass sports car."
When the 46-year-old Shen assembled his team in spring 2012 to start formulating ideas that would evolve into the concept, one car's name kept popping up: Supra.
It's one of the few vehicles in the Toyota lineup that actually has a sporty heritage in the United States. But the last Supra twin-turbocharged sports car was sold here in 2002.
"The perception in Japan was that the Supra was a good sports car," Hunter said. "In Japan, Supra is just another product in a long series of good products. They were unaware of its cult status here.
"But our designers, when we're out socially, when people ask us what we do, the very first question they all seem to ask is, 'When is the next Supra coming?'"
Calty's designers asked themselves how the Supra would have evolved had Toyota kept redesigning it. By 2014, two more generations of the vehicle would have passed through customer hands and another redesign would be arriving this year. What would it look like by now?
Turns out Toyota HQ didn't want Calty to be completely hamstrung by focusing its design on Supra-think. After several rounds of transoceanic meetings, it was decided to not attach the Supra name to the concept. Not only did that ease the pressure of expectations, but it gave the design team more freedom of expression.
They didn't know what to call the concept; it just wouldn't be "Supra." Eventually, the car would be known as FT-1, as in "Future Toyota," with "1" representing "the ultimate."
"The FT-1 concept pays homage to Toyota's entire sports car heritage, including the Celica, Supra and, before that, the iconic 2000GT," Fukuichi said in an e-mail interview. "The FT-1 is meant to be an extension of this historic lineage, but not a replacement or reinvention."
Before putting pencil to paper, the Calty team went to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in June 2012 and drove the track's amassed collection of European exotic cars. The intent was not to pillage other companies' collective ideas but to see how other automakers approached the idea of a modern sports car and to explore how Toyota's styling language fit into that realm.
"It was more than a field trip," said William Chergosky, Calty's interior chief designer, a grin escaping his attempt at a poker face.
The group came back with so many opinions that every designer in the studio was allowed to sketch his or her own ideas for the concept.
"Everyone had their own vision of a Toyota sports car," Shen said. "We went around the room to get ideas, and there were obvious words like 'sexy.' But what kind of sexy should it be? There could be nothing trite or contrived about it. It had to attract and perform."
Through the summer of 2012, a circular wall of sketches was created in the studio, where designers slapped their various inspirations for the vehicle's form.
"It's something you feel and see that influences the way it looks," Chergosky said. "But it also comes back to the obvious: You don't want to overthink it. It's not superintellectual. You want to appeal to the inner 12-year-old. If you don't feel it, throw it out."
At Calty, stylists generally are directed not to become locked into their first sketches but to let new ideas flow — especially if they're working on the brand's halo car. Doodling is encouraged. Much of the best work comes from designers on their lunch hour, taking a break from other assigned projects.
For three months, Calty's designers drew their interpretations, with Hunter's caveat of "so long as the car looks like it came from Toyota, not from Ferrari or Chevy or Dodge."
"Even though we were designing the car in America, there was some exoticness to being true to Japan's culture and who we are as a company," Hunter said. "Everyone has their own identity. It's hard to wedge a new car into a place where people don't say, 'Ooh, it looks like a Corvette,' or whatever. We didn't want to go off in a direction where we missed our target. We didn't want to rely on fashion."
Calty President Kevin Hunter told his design team, “Convince me that it’s cool.”
'The perfect one'
Typically, when designing a concept car, Toyota engineers give Calty a vehicle's dimensions, along with instructions on packaging and the "hard points" where chassis and body structure should meet. But in this case the studio did its own proportioning work for the wheelbase, width and overhangs, Shen said.
Andrew MacLachlan, the FT-1's concept planner, noted that while Calty was given a clean slate, the team also knew that Fukuichi and Toyota's top executives in Japan had to approve the work. Calty enlisted Toyota Racing Development engineers to ensure that the car's aerodynamics were legit.
Added Shen: "This was to be a design-focused vehicle, not engineering-based. This was what designers' ideal proportions of what a sports car should be."
A key decision early on: where to place the engine?
Although the 2000GT of the late '60s, the first-generation Celica and all Supras have had a front-engine/rear-wheel-drive setup, the MR-2 was mid-engined. Many Ferraris and Lamborghinis have engines located behind the driver, and the 911 famously parked the engine behind the rear axle. When it comes to sports cars, there is no simple right answer.
"We spent a lot of time deciding on stance and proportion, whether it should be front-engine/rear-drive or a midship-mounted engine," Shen said.
"Everyone had their own vision of what makes a Toyota sports car."
The consensus was to have a front-mounted engine, located mostly behind the front axle.
Because designers have egos, "Every designer thought their [sketch] was the perfect one, so we had to manage that," Shen said with a laugh.
The exterior design emerged from there. No single sketch won the contest; an amalgam of ideas was mashed into one final design sketch.
It was the fall of 2012. With little more than a year before the car would be unveiled, it was time to start making small clay models.
Meanwhile, the interior design team had started working on packaging. The passenger compartment was being designed "like a slingshot, where the driver is the projectile," Chergosky said.
Although a concept car gives license to be dramatic, Chergosky's team wanted elements that could be passable in a production car.
The cabin headliner couldn't look "like a big piece of dryer lint." The engine brace that protrudes into the cabin was designed "to take something mundane and make it amazing." The head-up display looked pulled from a fighter jet.
"We wanted to fall in love with each element," said the 43-year-old Chergosky. "We went the extra mile."
As the interior and exterior began taking shape, Hunter took a rather laissez-faire approach to his marching orders, distilling it down to "convince me that it's cool." This from a 53-year-old boss who has a Captain Picard Star Trek uniform hanging in the corner of his office and a Batman Pez dispenser on his desk.
From the collection of final sketches, Calty modelers took the two months before Christmas 2012 to sculpt six 15 percent scale models and mill four interior bucks. There still was no clear winner.
"We were looking at ideas for potential," Shen said. "There was a lot of, 'I'm not sure about this.' There were a lot of discussions. It was kind of like therapy, with who saw what, and what felt better. It was an emotionally driven design process."
Rather than pick a winner, intriguing elements were taken from each clay model, and a series of 40 percent scale models attempted to harmonize those elements into one final design. Shen calls the process "functional sculpting," which is meant to be "emotional … juicy with purpose, but not frivolous."
One problem: What looked great at 40 percent didn't look so great when blown up to a full-scale packaging study. It did not feel right, Hunter said. The wheelbase was too long. The car looked "a little fluffy," like it had too much mass.
Time was running out. The new year was starting, and the time-consuming milling of a full-sized "hard" model had to begin. The sign-off meeting with top management in Japan was barely two months away.
Within that two months, the wheelbase was shortened, the hood line and the rear three-quarter view were thinned to have more snap in the center line. The exhaust pipes were beefed up, and the taillights were given more zip. The rear deck received more aerodynamic treatment. And a huge rear spoiler sprouted from the trunk lid.
Still smelling of a mixture of composite materials, sweat and coffee, the full-sized model was crated up and loaded into the cargo hold of a jet bound for Japan, along with the Gran Turismo gaming pod that had been specially programmed by Polyphony Digital.
After Akio Toyoda's video-gaming exploits sealed the deal, approval was granted to build a show car — one able to propel itself onto a stage and be subject to scrutiny from the world's automotive executives and media.
Like most design studios, Calty doesn't have the machinery to build a self-propelling prototype from scratch. Instead, Calty called upon fabricator Five Axis, located just up Interstate 405, which had created a lengthy portfolio of Toyota, Lexus and Scion auto show concept vehicles.
"We just dropped off the data," Hunter says. He's kidding.
Transforming software coding into a milled model, and then into a working, breathing machine has hundreds of ways to go wrong. Even though all the numbers might appear to add up in the Alias design software, the scissor-hinged doors might not open properly when the car is shown to the world's automotive press. Or the interior might not align quite right with the exterior. A solenoid might not work, and the cool rear spoiler might not pop up from the trunk lid. Come auto show time, any error could be a career-shortening embarrassment.
For the next five months, a team of 15 Calty designers, modelers and fabricators invaded Toyota's secured space at Five Axis to build and perfect the FT-1. Toyota wouldn't reveal the price of the project, but concept cars typically cost about $1 million.
Finally, the concept rolled into Calty's shop at the end of November, to receive final detailing before being shipped to Detroit for last Monday's introduction.
Back in Orange County, as the car sat in repose in the dimmed, high-ceilinged Calty staging area, the three top designers gathered for video interview sessions. Normally, designers get no feedback on their work until it is shown to the public, for better or worse. But this is a rare exception.
Turning the tables, Shen looked at a reporter and asked — his voice a swirling mixture of pride and confidence, with just a hint of uncertainty: "What do you think?"
You can reach Mark Rechtin at email@example.com. -- Follow Mark on